Ministers appear to have decided to scale down the cull of British cattle which was promised at the Florence summit in June as the first step towards lifting the ban. At the time, the Prime Minister predicted the ban could be lifted by November.
Since then, a scientific study has suggested that BSE would virtually disappear by the end of the decade, regardless of the number of cattle killed. Several Conservative MPs have made clear that they would not support the Government in the Commons vote on the extra cull next month.
Last night Sir James Spicer, the loyalist MP for West Dorset, said there was "absolutely no case for an additional cull ... enough is enough".
But the reversal of the Government's position will be acutely embarrassing in Europe. The extra cull was promised as part of the deal which ended John Major's campaign to obstruct EU business, and the U-turn suggests that ministers have all but given up hope of getting the ban on British beef lifted on the foreseeable future.
Professor John Pattison, chairman of the Government's advisory committee on BSE which first warned of the possible transmission of the disease to humans in March, yesterday pulled back from some of the more alarmist projections for the future. No new cases of the variant of Creutzfeld- Jakob disease which could be the human form of BSE, and which triggered the beef crisis, have been reported in the past three months.
Professor Pattison said: "That means the news could have been very much worse. But good news will be a lot of time to be sure of."
But he also told ITN: "The risk assessment in Germany is much more severe ... that's because they're German."
If the Government abandons the extra cull this will harden attitudes on the Continent. EU vets meet today to review the ban, but are not expected to recommend any change in the position.
A Ministry of Agriculture spokesman insisted no decision had been made, although Angela Browning, agriculture minister, said recently that the Government would review the situation in the light of new research findings.
An extended cull programme was a crucial factor in Britain's securing agreement at the EU summit in Florence in June to a framework for gradually lifting the EU's worldwide ban on British beef.
But the value of the programme was called into question by recent research suggesting the cull would have only minimal effect on the eradication of BSE.
The prospects for the EU actually lifting the ban look gloomy.Reuse content